Transitioning Your Successor: The Politics of Letting Go

During a succession transition the departing executive needs to let go of control and set their successor up for success.  Sometimes this goes well and sometimes it does not.  One CEO who did this beautifully focused on the symbols of letting go.  He gave his office up right away, would defer to the new leader when asked strategic questions, and he made himself available during the transition but stayed out of the new executive’s way.  Others are not so lucky.  The letting go process is filled with politics, turf wars, and tough conversations. What gets in the way of a departing executive letting go?  Here are two of the most common political derailers and how to navigate through them.

Identity Related Politics

When the departing executive’s identity is wrapped up in their work it is harder for them to let go.  This tends to happen in founder situations or when an executive has built their whole career with one company.  For founders and “lifers” leaving the company can feel like breaking up with a deep love, or like losing a part of themselves.  It begs an important question: Who am I without this job? 

When the departing executive is struggling with identity issues they may inadvertently create politics by holding back information, or not adequately passing over key relationships, making themselves “too present” in strategic situations, or on the floor with staff, and in the worst cases they may hold back critical information.  All of this creates confusion about who to go for strategic insight and it can erode people’s confidence in the leadership transition.

Executives who are able to let go effectively typically are proactive about how they are going to deal with the transition and the associated sense of loss. For example, one CEO who successfully transitioned to their successor and shifted from executive to board work said: “I am going to China for two months so I can create some space to answer the big questions about what is next and enjoy some travel.” This is what he did.  While away he stayed on email to support the new President, and he came back with a career and life plan for himself. 

You can get a sense of whether your departing executive is on a healthy track or likely to stir up politics by asking:  What do you plan to do next?  And, what support do you have through the transition?  If they can’t answer these questions you need to ensure they are still prepared to let go, and consider getting them support.

Hero Politics

Sometimes the departing executive has the false belief that no one can do their job as well as they can.  In their own mind they are the “hero” who has kept the company alive (even if they won’t admit it).  I see this most often in professional services firms where the departing executive was the rainmaker in charge of business development and relationships. It can be like a badge of honour to feel indispensable.  When the hero dilemma is alive and well in an organization you hear things from the Board and staff like: “I don’t know what we will do without you.”  That’s a different message from “We will miss you.”

The hero mindset can lead to two challenges.  First, departing executives with this mindset tend to delay grooming a successor because they can’t see how someone could possibly fill their shoes.  Second, they may try to find a successor using the “similar to me” bias, meaning that they look for someone like them rather than slowing down to think about the future of the business. 

Executives without the hero mindset behave differently. They tend to think about the long term future of the company and what is needed to sustain the business and service customers.  They see their departure as a moment to think intentionally about what the business needs to stay competitive in the future.  “What’s changing in the world?  How does this influence the way we need to do business?  And, how do need to position this role to ensure we are adding value to customers in the future?”

They are also more willing to think about ways that their job and responsibilities can be allocated to others, perhaps splitting their role between two people or creating systems or processes so that others can fulfill their responsibilities.  They give themselves lead time so they can spend years (not days) cultivating the skillset required. For example, one proactive CEO said: “I groom all the executives for my role so that I know the strategic capabilities run deep.  The bonus of this approach is that I have a stronger executive team as a result.”

If identity or hero related politics are evident in your organization be aware that it can lead to a “one up and one down” dynamic between the outgoing and incoming executive.  This means that the departing executive is viewed as the gold standard and the new executive is the second best.  This can lead to fear about the future rather than optimism.  It is much more valuable when the departing executive explains what they have done to set the new leader up for success, and they express how they will continue to support the leader during the transition, and that they areconfidence in the new executive’s talents and capabilities.